Outside Nigeria, no one seems prepared for the possibility of such a calamity. The United States has mouthed threats while Britain, the Western country closest to Nigeria and its biggest trading partner, has not even done that.
The confrontation is between Nigerians who want a return to democratic civilian rule and a military regime determined to crush all opposition. The vanguard of the democratic movement is the oil workers, who have maintained an almost solid strike since 4 July, cutting output by more than a half. They are demanding the release of Moshood Abiola, winner of last year's presidential election.
Although the election was controlled from start to finish by General Ibrahim Babangida, the military ruler, all observers say it was broadly free and fair. At the last moment, however, Babangida aborted his creation and appointed another government.
Nigeria has been ruled by its soldiers for all but 10 years of its independent existence. The soldiers have prevented the break-up of the country but have achieved little else. Kept afloat by Nigeria's oil wealth, they were able to play off the politicians against each other and cut deals to head off democratic movements. But they have had no real plan beyond keeping themselves in power and stealing from public funds. They have also become identified with the northern Muslim elite, which might fight rather than be ruled by a southerner such as Abiola.
Babangida was a masterful manipulator of Nigeria's factional and personalised politics, delaying a return to civilian rule for eight years. But in cancelling last year's election he ran out of options. He was bundled out of office by Sani Abacha, his chief of staff, an altogether different type of man who shows no willingness to cut deals. At the same time, the soldiers' rapacity has become more exposed.
Abacha, an old-fashioned military dictator, has few political skills. His attempt to set up a constitutional conference fools no one. The world is used to seeing Nigeria's rhetorical politics leading to shabby deals.
This time the struggle is real. Britain should make a public declaration of support for democracy in Nigeria and use all its influence in the country to further it.Reuse content